You decided to file a lawsuit because someone owes you money, like a customer or a tenant, or someone has some personal property that rightfully belongs to you. After you filed a Complaint and after the person you sued (the "defendant") filed an Answer, the court clerk scheduled a trial date. The defendant never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. Maybe you even tried mediation, where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise, but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the trial. The West Virginia magistrate court is about to decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, it's a good idea for you know how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you win.
Both you (you're the "plaintiff") and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the magistrate court clerk. Be on time and be ready. Get to the courthouse at least one hour before the scheduled time, just in case the court is moving ahead of schedule or there's a problem with your paperwork.
Bring everything you've gathered to prove your case, like receipts and photographs. And, make sure your witnesses know where the court is, when they need to be there, and what testimony they'll give (what they need to say). If possible, offer to give them a ride to the courthouse with you.
In some West Virginia small claims courts, you and the defendant may be asked if you're willing to have the case go to a mediator to try and work out a settlement. If you both don't agree to mediation, or if you agree to it but you can't settle your dispute, the case will go to trial. Unless either you or the defendant requested a jury trial, a magistrate will hear the case. The trial process itself is simple and straightforward:
- The court clerk will "call" your case, usually by its docket number (a reference number assigned to your case when you filed it) and by your and the defendant's names. You, the defendant, and any witnesses will be sworn-in
- The magistrate will ask you to explain your case first. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses should testify, too. Usually, the magistrate will ask you and your witnesses questions
- The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you or return the property to you. The defendant will present his evidence and witnesses at this time
- The magistrate may ask you, the defendant, or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- With the magistrate's permission, you'll be given the chance to respond to each other's statements, ask each other questions, and question each other's witnesses
- The magistrate will decide who wins; the decision is called the "judgment." She may do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under consideration" or "under advisement," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens (and it's very common), you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the decision
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, work orders, bids and estimates, police reports and the like
- The damaged goods you're suing over, or photographs of the goods
- Photographs or illustrations that explain what happened, such as where a car accident happened
- Any letters, e-mail messages, or other correspondence between you and the other party
Make sure you bring at least three copies of any documents or photos you want to use a trial: One for the court, one for the defendant, and one for you.
As plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. That means you have to convince the magistrate that the defendant owes you money or has your property. Likewise, if you're the defendant and you filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff, you have to prove that he owes you money or has property that belongs to you.
You should follow these general suggestions for courtroom conduct:
- Be on time for your trial, and dress as nicely as you can. This shows the magistrate that you're taking the trial seriously
- Stick to the issues in dispute when presenting your case
- Be polite at all times and don't interrupt the magistrate. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the magistrate gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If neither you nor defendant show up at trial, the case will be dismissed. If you fail to appear at trial, the magistrate will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you may win automatically. The magistrate will enter a judgment (called a "default judgment") awarding you the amount of your claim, plus your court costs or filing fees. In the case of a default, you still need to show the magistrate that your claim against the defendant is valid. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you don't show up at trial to defend it.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to appear at trial even if I hire you to represent me in the magistrate court?
- I was in a car accident on my way to trial and I didn't make it in time. The magistrate dismissed my case. What can I do?
- A witness I need for my trial won't answer my phone calls or letters. Is there anyway I can make her show up at trial?